When I enter a manufacturing plant, the first thing I look for is paper — clipboards, paper forms, folders, envelopes, binders, etc. The presence of these items on the plant floor is a telling indicator of the plant's maturity and operations.
Don't get me wrong, I love paper, and it has many uses. As a technology, few alternatives are faster, more flexible, and cheaper to implement than paper. Paper itself is not the problem, but it is a crucial symptom pointing to deeper challenges in the factory. My goal in helping Operations improve their efficiency, effectiveness, and profitability is not "to eliminate paper," however that is the inevitable result.
I often ask business owners and plant managers about their goals, and frequently I hear "to eliminate paper." This response tells me they can recognize the symptoms but not the complete problem.
Paper is an indicator that an organization undervalues the power of data to make manufacturing more efficient. Paper provides a fast way to capture certain types of data, but it remains locked in ink so that it can't be instantly analyzed, evaluated, and distributed to those who need it.
A common alternative answer to the goal question is "to automate data collection." This is the flip side of the paper answer and tells me they understand the value of data but may not know the most valuable source - namely, the people.
Automating data collection and eliminating paper are not the actual outcomes that business owners are looking for. These are a means to an end. The real goals are to make the business more efficient and profitable.
For plants that are starting from a base of paper, the most significant opportunity for efficiency gain is to speed the reaction time between when a problem occurs and when it is corrected. Often they already collect the right data, but when trapped on paper, it can't drive a quick reaction to current or pending problems.
When data is moved from paper records to digital records, software can react at lightning speed. Rules can be applied to look for cases outside the expected norms to alert of exceptions. Better still, the digital records can be analyzed for trends that indicate a pending issue that can be corrected before a problem occurs.
In some cases, the data can come from sensors that can be automated to collect information quickly and efficiently - i.e., "Machine Data." However, much of the data that drive a plant comes from the people - i.e., "Human Data." Both Machine and Human data are needed to drive efficiency. If you can only deal with data from a digital machine source, you miss the most varied and critical part of the data you need.
There is a huge bonus to using digital records to drive safety, quality, and efficiency. Those same digital records will also support audits. Plant efficiency is the goal, and instant auditability is a beneficial result. Too often, paper plants have this relationship reversed, where auditability is the reason for records and finding useful data is secondary.
Paper has its place, but when it comes to creating efficient manufacturing operations that can react to issues in real-time, digital records far and away exceed the expediency of paper.